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Graduate Students Set Strike. Faculty Union Sets Vote to Strike or Not

Tom Ackerman | Posted on March 15, 2019

Photo courtesy of UIC GEO. Graduate students held informational pickets before they intended to strike, such as this one in early December.

Photo courtesy of UIC GEO.

The graduate student union and the university’s administration have one more scheduled chance to prevent the strike set for March 19.

Graduate Students Intended to Strike in One Week. Faculty Union Sets Vote Own Vote to Strike or Not

Photo courtesy of UIC GEO. Graduate students held informational pickets before they intended to strike, such as this one in early December.

Graduate students held informational pickets before they intended to strike, such as this one in early December.

The two parties met on Tuesday without finding a significant compromise. The two will meet again on March 18.

The union is raising funds in the event that a strike will occur, but Jeff Schuhrke, the Graduate Employee Organization’s Co-President, said donations are received after a potential strike happens.

“What we understand from the graduate strike last year [at Urbana Champaign] is that very few people had pay docked from their striking,” Schuhrke said. He added that sources said in UIUIC’s strike last year, the HR department did not know to withhold graduate student pay unless a professor went out of their way to report specific students.

Still, GEO is preparing for a worst-case scenario.

Schuhrke said other university graduate unions have already donated to the gofundme page, such as the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. GEO has received over $6,000 from individual donors and is aiming to raise $25,000 in preparation for failed negotiations. Urbana Champaign’s graduate union also donated leftover supplies from their strike. Many UIUC members may join the strike because the strike will fit within their spring break.

The graduate students are paid on a monthly basis and will be paid on March 16.

UIUIC GEO did not respond for comment.

The Faculty Union organization is in the midst of negotiating their own contract with similar qualms about low wages and also tenure. The union recently reached out to its members to plan for a vote on whether they too will intend a date to strike. Both groups have been working without a contract since last summer and the faculty union has supported GEO through informational pickets.

Schuhrke said the strike will occur unless the university significantly compromises to demands, which he said has not yet been seen.

Graduate Student Joshua Bergeron is a Teaching Assistant in the UIC history department. Bergeron said he works odd jobs, looks for loopholes to make ends meet, and said his credit card is regularly maxed out on basic living expenses.

Bergeron said many graduate students talk about their difficulty in sustaining themselves. “For me, it has made focusing on dissertation writing particularly problematic,” he said. He added that undergraduates may relate. “A lot of people who come to school here are working people.”

Bergeron said while financial aid dictates that graduate students can receive a certain amount of money, UIC has its own estimated cost of attendance, which is less than the federal estimate. “Unfortunately, for many of us it costs more to live in Chicago and attend UIC than the financial aid department says it does, even with a tuition waiver,” Bergeron said in an email.

Bergeron approached the UIC financial aid office and ended up receiving less money than he was previously receiving. “Last year I only accepted a portion of my financial aid package because I thought it would be enough to get by. Before the semester ended, I was out of money. I asked the financial aid department for the rest of the money they originally offered and they declined because I had already met the cost of attendance,” Bergeron said.

He said even if he had received the money, the precedence is flawed because the correction should occur for all the graduate students and not take each individual’s time away from their studies, to fight for living wages.

Bergeron said he is out of money but he is getting used to the feeling.

Professor Kirk Hoppe is a 20-year professor in the UIC History department and works with Bergeron. Hoppe is a member of the faculty union and remembers the 2014 strike that lasted two days. “It’s funny, I’ve been to protests before, like political protests, but when I got there, I thought this is pretty serious – to not go to your job,” Hoppe said.

Hoppe referenced the nature of academia and the steady push towards corporatization, with loss of tenure, full-time faculty, and on-ground lectures. He said after World War Two, UIC’s history department was two-and-a-half times bigger than it is now, with more faculty and fewer students than is currently in place.

Hoppe said faculty have started to perceive themselves more as workers rather than participants and decision makers along with the administration. With fewer professors and more graduate students, he said the students are lucky to get the practice in teaching but are also being exploited.

“I’m going to talk to my class next week about the TA strike and the union so the students know what’s going on,” he added. Hoppe said he won’t do extra work that his TAs normally do because the system is built to include TA help, he said.

The history department is legally required to hire a TA for every 60 students. Hoppe said he would have no way to hold Friday discussion, which Bergeron facilitates, and said he hopes the strike is over by finals so students may get their grades.

He said negotiations take many hours of work from both sides and that they can be extremely timely because many of the major union decisions are made outside of Chicago.

“It’s not so much the institution has to give a $200 raise a year. They can deal with that. It’s more about a power relationship, Hoppe said.

The university also provided comment via email. “The university will continue to negotiate in good faith with the GEO and UIC United Faculty, which represents tenure and nontenure-track faculty in separate bargaining units until settlements are reached,” wrote UIC Senior Executive Director of Public Affairs, Sherri McGinnis Gonzalez.

Follow more student-oriented news from this UIC radio reporter at @Tom_AckermanDI

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